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2017: Year of the podcast


The year 2017 will likely be remembered for many things across the technology spectrum, from major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) and milestone moments in autonomous vehicles to Amazon conceding that a major offline presence in groceries was needed to compete in retail.

But buried within the big headline-grabbing stories of the year were microtrends that sprang up almost by surprise. And one of those relates to the humble podcast.

Podcast push

Though the podcast is far from a new medium, 2017 saw a surge of activity related to the audio broadcast format.

A couple of weeks back, Apple finally launched its podcast analytics feature so creators can garner more data about how their listeners consume podcasts on iOS devices and can gain potentially valuable insights into their listening habits.

This could be a game-changer not only in terms of how podcasters use data to inform their handiwork but in their ability to attract revenue by giving advertisers more information about listeners.

When the feature was quietly announced at WWDC back in June, some of those in the know suggested that Apple’s podcast analytics tool was the biggest thing to have happened to podcasting in quite some time, given that Apple’s mobile platforms still play a pivotal role in the podcast industry.

It may look obscure, but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear https://t.co/4tWfvckKM9

— Matthew Lieber (@mlieber) June 10, 2017

But Apple’s announcement was really the cherry on the cake for a year that saw interest in podcasting hit new heights in terms of popularity, ad revenue, and investment.

Big bucks

In a one-month period between August and September, New York-based podcast studio and network Gimlet Media raised $20 million, with big-name backers including advertising giant WPP. In August, San Francisco-based podcast hosting and distribution company Art19 closed a $7.5 million series A round from notable New York- and Menlo Park-based VC firms Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Later in the month, HowStuffWorks revealed it was spinning out from its parent company as an indie podcast network backed by a fresh $15 million series A investment.

Fast-forward to September, and Google investment arm GV led a $10 million investment in Anchor, a New York-based mobile-focused platform that makes it easy for anyone to record audio on the move and transform that audio into a podcast. This came a week after Stockholm-based podcasting platform Acast raised $19.5 million from a group of Swedish investors.

Podcasting platforms haven’t traditionally garnered significant sums of cash, yet over a two-month period five podcasting companies announced more than $70 million in raises. And that’s not including CastBox, a podcasting startup founded by a former Googler last year, which announced $16 million in funding in October — this was a delayed announcement and constituted a series of investments from early 2016 to June 2017.

The upshot of all this is that podcasting has emerged as a hot industry for investment. But why?

Consumers, it seems, are hungry for audio-based entertainment. The proliferation of smartphones is leading to an explosion in digital audio content, and companies such as Amazon and Google are pushing their voice-enabled smart speakers out to the masses — which bodes well for continued growth. “With some of the biggest companies in the world investing in smart speakers, microphones, and content, audio and voice will only become more popular in the coming years,” Anchor cofounder and CEO Mike Mignano told VentureBeat in an interview earlier this year.

Though the major tech firms have increasingly invested in video, audio holds a number of advantages — you can drive to work, cook dinner, or wire your house while listening to podcasts. “Audio is great because it saves you time,” added Mignano. “You can consume it no matter what you’re doing.”

This multitasking is something people would once do while listening to broadcast radio, but on-demand audio could be changing the landscape. Why listen to your local radio news bulletins when you can turn to podcasts to soak up all things boxing or baseball as you decorate your house?

“The content environment is shifting quickly, and as radio becomes less and less relevant, audio-on-demand will take its place,” said Acast cofounder and chief strategy officer Karl Rosander.

report by Edison Research and Triton Digital earlier this year delved into digital media consumption trends, with audio and podcasting featuring prominently. The report found that 67 million Americans, or 24 percent of the population, listen to podcasts each month, which represents a rise of 3 percentage points on the previous year’s 57 million figure.

Additionally, the report found that 60 percent of Americans are now familiar with the term “podcasting,” an increase of 22 percent in two years.

The Apple factor

There is no shortage of channels through which to consume podcasts. Countless cross-platform distribution platforms and apps are available, from SoundCloud and Pocket Casts to Stitcher and beyond, making it easy to subscribe to your favorites. However, reports generally indicate that more than 55 percent of podcast listening takes place through Apple’s native iOS Podcast app or iTunes. This is why Apple’s move to open up data to creators (beyond the number of downloads) could prove crucial for the industry’s continued growth — advertisers love data.

U.S. podcast ad revenues are expected to have grown by around 85 percent for 2017, compared to last year’s $119 million, according to recent data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). And this is something that the ad agencies are noticing, too.

“Our clients’ media spend has increased 300 percent vs. 2016, and I’d say we have 2 to 5 potential clients cold-calling us every week, interested in learning more about podcast advertising,” said Kurt Kaufer, partner and CMO at audio-focused advertising agency Ad Results Media, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Advertisers are really seeing success, which in return is fueling the ecosystem — raising talent, raising content, and raising ad dollars.”

Apple’s analytics service, which is available in beta now, should allow podcasters to track unique devices and playback metrics, including when the audience drops off during a show. Advertisers will surely be more inclined to spend on podcasts if they know exactly how many people are listening to their ads, rather than paying a fee based on a show’s overall number of downloads, for example.

“We’re optimistic about the idea that creators will have access to more data, as we feel it will create more efficiency in the marketplace,” explained Steve Shanks, partner and CRO at Ad Results Media. “This, in turn, will help the entire industry, both on the advertising and content sides. With increased data and insights, we’ll have the ability to better predict the potential winners and losers for our campaigns, which should create even better results for our clients.”

Of course, the data revealed by the analytics may have the opposite effect — if it turns out that one million people download a podcast but only 5 percent bother listening to the ads, this could deter potential advertisers. But the data arms everyone with the right tools to tackle whatever needs tackling — even if it means rethinking how advertising is delivered through podcasts.

“While some might see this as a complete game-changer for podcast advertising, we still have a ‘wait and see’ mindset,” added Shanks. “While results are everything for us, and we’re excited to see Apple’s interest in developing its analytics platform, it’s still anyone’s guess what exact data will be provided and how this may shift the perceived performance of each individual podcast.”

When U.S. presidential candidates kick off their campaigns with a podcast and online language-learning platforms branch into podcasts to help you learn Spanish, you know there is probably something major bubbling under the surface.

If 2017 was big, 2018 could prove a particularly pivotal year for podcasting as a business.

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How Firefox won the 2017 browser wars

It’s been a great year for Firefox. After falling behind its rivals in terms of speed and market share, Mozilla launched itself back into the game in 2017 with Firefox Quantum – the browser’s biggest update since its first release in 2004.

“We fell behind for five years, so it feels good to come out swinging,” Mark Mayo, vice president of Firefox, told TechRadar just before the launch of Quantum in November. We’re just going to go straight at them!”

Quantum is a huge step up for Firefox, with speeds that challenge Chrome and a new interface designed to make browsing a smooth, more pleasant experience, but it was just one part of Mozilla’s 2017 success story.

Focus on privacy

Along with speed, privacy was one of Mozilla’s biggest focal points for 2017. We spoke to Mayo at Mozilla’s Glass Room exhibition in London – a pop-up art exhibition exploring the way our personal data is harvested, used and sold when we use online services – often without us fully realizing.

Exhibits including an eight-hour video of a man reading the full Kindle terms and conditions, printed books of leaked LinkedIn logins that visitors could check for their own details, and a vast web of pins and string showing the hundreds of connections between Google and other online service providers.

The Glass Room pop-up art installation pulled no punches, highlighting the way other web companies collect, use and share your personal data

The show pulled no punches, and followed the release of the privacy-focused Firefox Focus for Android. The mobile browser, which was released for iOS in 2016, automatically deletes users’ browsing history at the end of each session. It also disables ads that track browsing activity, which has a knock-on effect of speeding up page load times.

“The focus is on simplicity, so you don’t have to go into private mode in your usual browser – you’re there straight away,” Barbara Bermes, senior product manager of Firefox Mobile Browsers, told us after the launch.

There’s no desktop version of Focus in the works yet, but Chromebook users can download it from the Google Play Store like any other app.

Firefox on phones

Mobile will continue to be a particular focus for Firefox in 2018, as the team aim to bring some of the improvements from Quantum to the small screen. There’s already been a halo effect, with installs of the mobile browser picking up pace since November.

It’s a challenge Mayo is looking forward to. “There’s more need for big leaps in performance on mobile than on desktop,” he told us just before Christmas, when we caught up to discuss 2017’s highlights, and what we can expect to see in the new year.

Firefox Focus for Android

Firefox Focus came to Android in 2017, letting you browse on mobile without leaving a trace

“The big [achievement] I’m super happy about is that we were able to release a new Firefox,” he said. “That’s been especially great for the team after a pretty intense 18 months.”

He sees Quantum’s speed as great news for all internet users, forcing Microsoft and Google to focus on delivering quicker, smoother performance as well.

“Other browsers should get faster as well,” he told us. “It’s just going to be great for all users because everyone is going to compete on speed again, which hasn’t happened for a while. Chrome will get faster, Edge will get faster.”

Mozilla is far from done, though. The Quantum project as a whole is only halfway done, so we’re expecting plenty more developments in the new year – on all platforms. That’s good for everyone; as Mayo says: “When the web gets better, everyone wins”.

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Samsung and LG say they don’t slow down older phones, either

Following Apple’s admission that it deliberately slowed down older phones to allow the battery to continue to power the processor, the list of rival smartphone manufacturers announcing they don’t follow the same practice continues to grow.

Yesterday we saw statements from both Moto and HTC affirming that they don’t throttle their smartphones, and today Samsung and LG Electronics have both chimed in to report that they don’t either, reports PhoneArena.

LG kept it brief, saying, “Never have, never will! We care what our customers think.”

Samsung was more chatty, saying, “Product quality has been and will always be Samsung Mobile’s top priority. We ensure extended battery life of Samsung mobile devices through multi-layer safety measures, which include software algorithms that govern the battery charging current and charging duration. We do not reduce CPU performance through software updates over the lifecycles of the phone.”

Revenge of the quick fix

Good to know, but these statements probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that Apple’s practice grew out of a very specific response to the iPhone 6 last January after customers noticed that their devices were shutting down without warning. 

With iOS Patch 10.2.1, Apple announced that it had “improved” the issue, but wasn’t upfront about the nature of that improvement, leading to the current backlash. It was a “quick fix” that unfortunately apparently became standard practice.

Apple has since penned a letter of apology, and also announced that it will start offering battery replacements for the iPhone 6 and above throughout all of 2018 for just $29/£25. That’s a significant drop down from the usual price of $79/£79.

The tech giant has also stated that an iPhone’s batteries drain significantly after 500 charge cycles, and that it plans to introduce more tools to better keep track of your iPhone’s battery life in iOS in 2018.

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10 big issues Apple should address in 2018


OPINION:

For Apple-focused writers, no subject is as thankless as a “what should Apple do” article. Why should any mere journalist presume to offer guidance to a company that has weathered decades of second-guessing, only to emerge at the very top of the heap? Some of Apple’s more… devoted fans treat even light criticism of the company as heresy.

I believe that even wildly successful companies can get better, and that for all of its financial acumen, Apple could clearly benefit from some outside perspective to improve in 2018. In that spirit, here are 10 topics for consideration and discussion; I hope they inspire Apple to “think different” next year.

10. Let iOS devices automatically adjust to cars, offices, and homes

Two years ago, Apple introduced a new feature called Proactive that was supposed to use time or location information to help surface apps and information — a narrower version of Google Now. iOS devices need to be smarter and more capable than that.

Between location services, Bluetooth pairing, and Wi-Fi/cellular connections, your iPhone should know when it’s in your car and be able to follow predefined “car rules,” like “don’t start randomly playing a song from my music library just because you connected to my car stereo.” (Seriously, why does it still do that?) Similarly, a “home” profile might tell an iPad to automatically connect to a favorite speaker system or a bedroom TV, while an “office” profile could route all audio to AirPods and automatically open a specific work app. You could create profiles for the specific scenarios that fit your life, triggered by location, time, or pairing with certain accessories, and your iOS device would behave accordingly.

9. Make iPods relevant again

Apple killed the iPod Shuffle, Nano, and Classic, but the iPod Touch is still alive. The iPod name is still a solid brand, and in the hands of the right dedicated marketing and third-party software team, the Touch could easily be refocused and pitched as a viable competitor to Nintendo’s Switch — which has been deemed a mega hit on the strength of selling 10 million units in a year. Heck, if Apple doesn’t know what to do with the iPad Mini (kids still love it), the smaller tablet could fall into the iPod family, too.

Alternatively, Apple could simply repurpose the iPod Touch in a new housing as a $150 desktop-tethered competitor to Amazon’s video-capable Echo models. The OS, apps, and chips are all there — all that’s needed is a new screen and housing. Again, using the iPod name for a product that’s not meant for computing would be fitting.

8. Streamline the iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch families

Thanks to competing 9.7-inch and 10.5-inch devices in the middle of the iPad family, as well as Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions of every iPad at every capacity, the iPad lineup has become too big. Similarly, the iPhone family now includes eight different devices, six of which (iPhone 6s, 7, and 8) don’t all need to exist — they stand out like a repetitive sore thumb in the image above. And there are too many versions of the Apple Watch to count, thanks to multiple series, sizes, materials, straps, and branded strap bundles. These product lines are a mess, just like Apple’s 1990s Mac lineup was before Steve Jobs took an axe to it.

Solution: Streamline every product line. Keep three iPads (say, 9-inch/11-inch/13-inch without Home Buttons) in regular and Pro versions, the latter with higher capacities and integrated cellular as an option. Launch two iPhones — iPhone 11 and iPhone 9 — each in three screen sizes (S/M/L), with the 11 a year ahead of the 9 in processor speed, camera performance, and materials.

And sell two Apple Watches — Series 4 and Series 3 — each in two sizes, in aluminum/steel/ceramic materials, always with an Apple sport band included. Since Apple Watches are supposed to be personal and customizable, users should be able to download new Faces from a Watch-specific store, and customize any Watch to look the way they prefer. Buy a Nike or Hermès band separately and get a download code for a special watch face.

7. Get real already with the Apple TV

It’s unfortunate but not surprising that the Apple TV business remains disappointing for Apple — every generation, it somehow finds ways to lag behind smaller competitors in everything from pricing to apps. It currently sells 3 Apple TV models at $149-$199 prices that don’t make much sense, given that Roku’s most powerful 4K device sells for under $100, and the market has largely shifted to sub-$70 streaming sticks.

Apple blew its chance to get people to buy Apple TV apps and games (the latter over a stupid joystick policy), so a $99 Apple TV 4K with 16GB would be fine for most people; unless something huge is going to change with developers this year, the Apple TV only exists to stream videos and music. Support for 4K or better-than-720p streaming from iOS devices with 4K video cameras is overdue, too.

6. Improve MacBook Pro battery performance

Owners of the 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pros know that the machines radically underperform Apple’s marketed longevity estimates under most conditions. A Bloomberg report late last year suggested that Apple knew as much when it shipped the 2016 Pros, as a more capacious battery solution flunked testing at the last minute, leaving the Macs underequipped.

These machines simply cannot be used for “Pro” purposes as long as users would expect, and Apple should provide a solution, perhaps a working version of the tiered battery originally planned for the machines. If iPhone 6-like class action suits are necessary to make MacBook Pro buyers whole on this, so be it.

5. Whip Siri into shape and release affordable Siri Speakers

I discussed this topic in a separate article yesterday — to sum it up, Apple needs to improve and expand Siri’s capabilities to match its best AI assistant rivals, as well as to offer Siri devices that can be placed all throughout a home. Amazon (Echo Dot) and Google (Google Home Mini) have figured this out, and are being rewarded for it with record hardware sales and chart-topping app downloads.

There is no way Apple’s upcoming $349 HomePod is going to have the same impact. It’s time to adjust course, now.

4. Reinvigorate the Apple accessory market

Apple’s pitch to accessory developers for the past 13 years has been “pay us fees, follow our rules, make exclusive accessories for us, and gather money from our customers.” For users, Apple’s pitch has been “Apple-approved accessories cost more because they’re tested to be safe and device-compatible.”

But as Apple’s recent HomeKit security debacle, prior failures with AirPlay speakers, and botched transition to Lightning connectors demonstrated, the company’s “do it our way” approach isn’t working so well for consumers or developers. Over the past decade, Apple has reduced a once thriving accessory market to rubble, and turned millions of customers towards more reasonably priced alternatives from no-name brands and cloners. As AR, VR, AI, and other disruptive technologies gain steam, it’s time for Apple to overhaul its accessory licensing business and start working with the next generation of hardware developers rather than trying to control them.

3. Merge Mac and iOS apps with a cross-platform focus on touch input

Bloomberg confirmed this month what (most) Apple fans have wanted for years: Macs will soon be able to run iOS apps. Apple could deliberately try to keep forcing people to buy separate laptops and tablets, but it needs to look at the bigger picture and embrace what customers want.

Step one: Let any iPad and iPhone app run in a window just like Xcode’s iOS development tool Simulator, with the trackpad or mouse handling as much interaction as possible, and enable developers to choose alternate Mac UIs if they want. That will pave the way for Apple to…

2. Release touchscreen Macs, already

Apple has been embarrassingly, completely wrong on this one; people want touchscreen Macs, and it’s crazy that you can walk into a Microsoft Store today and find many Mac-like laptops and desktops that allow seamless touch and stylus input… at lower-than-Mac prices.

The MacBook “Touch Bar” has turned out to be an expensive distraction for Apple; few developers care about it, and users don’t seem to be using it. So it’s time to embrace touchscreens across as many Macs as possible — combined with trackpads and styluses, they’ll make a lot of users happy. Happier than the Touch Bar does, for sure.

1. Fix your PR department

If Apple outwardly cares about its customers, you’d never know it from its public relations department. Readers generally don’t realize that Apple commonly ignores requests from writers who are covering Apple’s products and events. They also might not know that Apple commonly seeds information to specific “friendly” writers who reprint the company’s statements verbatim, or that Apple limits access to its events and new devices to people who won’t be particularly critical.

In 2018, if Apple is going to claim to be a virtuous company, it needs to clean up its main interface with its customers: its public relations department. Rather than using fanboys and shills to disseminate information, Apple needs a properly functioning PR department that reaches out and responds to a wide array of people. It similarly needs a fair system of extending access to events and new products to journalists with different viewpoints. A more open and responsive Apple will lead to more reasonable coverage from the press, and quite possibly fewer lawsuits from angry, arguably misled customers.

Given how 2017 ended for Apple, wouldn’t that make the new year wonderful?

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What to Expect From Apple in 2018: Three New iPhones and iPad Pro With Face ID, HomePod, Refreshed Macs, and More

Like 2017, 2018 promises to be a major year for Apple, with many new products on the horizon. We’ll get Apple’s first smart speaker — the HomePod — this year, along with a second-generation version of the iPhone X accompanied by a larger-screened version for those who want to go even bigger.

A new iPad Pro with Face ID is said to be in the works, and this is also the year when Apple’s AirPower wireless charging mat will debut. Beyond that, we can expect Mac refreshes, new software, a new Apple Watch, and maybe that new modular Mac Pro.

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Below, we’ve rounded up all of the products we’re expecting to see from Apple in 2018 based on both current rumors that we’ve heard so far and past release information.

HomePod – Early 2018

HomePod is Apple’s first Wi-Fi connected smart speaker, designed to compete with existing smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. It was originally meant to debut in December, but Apple delayed its launch to an unspecified date in “early 2018.”

With HomePod, Apple focused on sound quality, with a 7 tweeter array, each with its own driver, and a 4-inch upward-facing woofer for crisp, distortion free sound. An A8 chip powers spatial awareness features, allowing the HomePod to analyze a room and then adjust the sound accordingly.

Siri is built into HomePod, and there’s integration with Apple Music for Apple Music subscribers. Using a six-microphone array, HomePod can detect Siri commands from anywhere in a room, so Siri can be used to play music, answer queries, and more.

We don’t know exactly when HomePod will be released, but it should come out in the first few months of 2018. Apple plans to charge $349 for the speaker.

Read more about HomePod in our HomePod roundup.

Three New iPhones – September 2018

Apple introduced three iPhones in 2017 — the iPhone X, the iPhone 8, and the iPhone 8 Plus — and current rumors suggest we’ll also see three new models in 2018.

The first iPhone we’re expecting will be a followup to the iPhone X with the same 5.8-inch OLED display. Rumors suggest it will be accompanied by a second OLED iPhone, this one measuring in at 6.5 inches, which means it can be thought of as an “iPhone X Plus.”

Alongside these two OLED iPhones, Apple is also said to be planning to introduce a 6.1-inch iPhone with an LCD display, positioned as a more affordable device targeting the low-end and midrange markets with a starting price of $649 to $749 in the United States.

Apple’s planned 2018 iPhone lineup, via Ming-Chi Kuo


According to KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, all three of these iPhones will feature edge-to-edge displays, Face ID, and TrueDepth camera systems, which means the end of both the Home button and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor in new iPhone models for the time being.

Continue reading What to Expect From Apple in 2018: Three New iPhones and iPad Pro With Face ID, HomePod, Refreshed Macs, and More